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Law firm denied access to records of accident victims

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    NMU         MICHIGAN         Freedom of Information         Mar 21, 2001    

Law firm denied access to records of accident victims

  • An appeals court determined that it is an “unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy” to release the records.

A Michigan Court of Appeals in Grand Rapids held March 13 that releasing names and addresses of accident victims, some of whom had died, would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy and, therefore, the City of Westland would not have to release the information to a law firm which had requested the information for advertising purposes.

The court noted that the state open records law generally promotes a policy of public access to information regarding government affairs. However, the privacy exemption allows the court to prohibit the release of the document if it meets a two-part evaluation: if the information in the record is “of a personal nature,” and if release of the record will “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”

In this case, the release of addresses or names of the accident victims was deemed personal because previous case law had found that “‘the very fact of having been involved in an automobile accident’ is an ’embarrassing fact.'” The law firm could not even have the addresses alone, the court said, because an address alone is still an “identifying, personal characteristic.”

The also court also declined to order release of information about persons who had died in automobile accidents because that information would also contain personal information, even though the court recognized that privacy interest as “small.”

In determining that disclosure would constitute an invasion of privacy, the court weighed the public’s interest in disclosure against the interest in protecting the privacy of the accident victims. The court said the law firm failed to demonstrate a more worthwhile public interest that might outweigh privacy concerns because it only sought the records for advertising.

(Baker v. City of Westland; Requestor’s Counsel: John Temrowski, Utica) CC

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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